Lately, I’ve had to learn a huge smorgasbord of skills in areas I have zero experience. Over my past decade teaching at the college level, I’ve become very accustomed to being the one in charge and having or finding a solution for every possible problem. I’ve found the process of acquiring these new skills to be a refreshing change. Instead of helping my students get back on their own feet, I’m now the one bumbling around, falling on my face left and right.
When I was a student at RISD, I was so appreciative of my professors who gave me the opportunities to mess up for the sake of trying something new and bold. As a professional, I’ve found it much more difficult to take big risks because when you stumble, it’s in front of the whole world. In school, I was insulated from all of my creative endeavors being on public display. There was an extraordinary freedom I had as a student that I didn’t appreciate enough at the time. I think that’s why I tell my students upfront on the first day of class that the reason they’re in school is to make mistakes. For many students, that’s a huge relief. Many of my students have been trained their entire lives up until then to be “correct,” which of course has no meaning in the visual arts.
I constantly talk to my students about the importance of failure in the creative process. While I firmly believe in this point of view, it’s one thing to talk about it, and it’s another thing to actually walk the plank the way I ask my students to. I’ll admit that I had forgotten how incredibly disorienting it can be to do something you have no clue about, and to be in a constant state of confusion. I haven’t felt this awkward since I was 12 years old. I have accepted that basically everything I do in this project has to be done wrong a minimum of three times before I make any progress. Somehow, doing a task badly a few times helps me see a good solution much more clearly.
I go ice skating with one of my friends frequently, and her six year old daughter just learned to ice skate last year. The fear of falling paralyzes a lot of kids when they first get on the ice, so many kids just stand there because they’re so afraid of falling. My friend’s daughter let herself fall every time she was even close to being even remotely off balance, and the result was that she quickly got over her fear of falling. In fact, once she figured this out, she seemed almost enjoy the fact that she was falling down every two minutes. (snow pants helped too) She quickly got over her fear of the ice and was skating in no time.
I like to think that I’ve borrowed my friend’s daughter’s pre-emptive mindset. I tell myself that I’m required to fail first, so I don’t even bother trying to get things “right” on the first few attempts. I can welcome failure and wade through my mistakes much more quickly. It’s an odd balance of feeling totally perplexed and yet being incredibly exhilarated at the same time. Who knew that being really bad at something could be so fun?